Flesh eating bacteria nearly kills Gonzales fisherman

Garey's leg after surgeons removed the dead tissue.
Garey's leg after surgeons removed the dead tissue.
Garey's wound has healed significantly thanks to hyperbaric therapy.
Garey's wound has healed significantly thanks to hyperbaric therapy.

The weekend of June 9, was meant to be all sun and fun at Grand Isle for Richard Garey and his family.

"Catching crabs and shrimp in the surf, and enjoying exactly what Grand Isle is about," said Garey about his 24 member family get together.

However, things took a bad turn after Garey fell while fishing on some of the rocks and cut his left leg.

"Came back in, cleaned it up pretty well. Went back out to go fishing," recalled Garey who is a soccer coach and no stranger to injury. "Thought I probably sprained my ankle very badly."

A trip Our Lady of the Sea Hospital in Cut Off confirmed an injured ankle. Doctors gave him an air cast and told him to follow up with his doctor at home.

What doctors didn't realize was that the real danger was in the cut itself.  A bacterium called vibrio vulnificus was already eating away at his skin and releasing dangerous toxins into his body. Within 48 hours of that visit, Garey was in septic shock, and was rushed to the hospital a second time.

Doctors then realized the extent of the infection, and rushed to prevent total organ failure.

"I was at the precipice. I could feel it and you knew that you weren't long for this world," said Garey.

Doctors were able to stabilize him enough to get him to the Terrebonne Hospital, where he had seven surgeries to remove infected tissue. He was left with a gaping wound, but the alternative was an amputation.

"I just remember the shock. But I also remember the happiness because I knew then that I had a chance of saving my leg," said the Gonzales resident.

Garey has since returned home and now continues his long road to recovery with Baton Rouge General's Advance Wound Care.  His main treatment is hyperbaric therapy.

"When patients are getting hyperbaric therapy, they're subjected to an atmosphere that pure oxygen and twice the normal pressure of oxygen. That boosts the level of oxygen in their blood and body tissue by up to 15 times. It's a huge increase," explained Dr. Roy Brabham.

The boost in O2 stimulates cell regrowth and healing.  It also suppresses bacteria, which cannot thrive in oxygen rich environments.

Hyperbaric therapy has several applications beyond treating severe bacterial infections.  It's also used to help diabetic wounds, bone infections and wounds related to radiation treatment.

In a month, Garey's wounds have healed significantly and he will soon be ready for a skin graft.

"He's lucky to have even survived," said Brabham.

Doctors say that because the fisherman acted quickly, he was able to beat the bacteria that has infected two others and killed one resident so far this summer. Garey credits all of the medical staff he encountered for saving his life.

As for the vibrio, Dr. Raoult Ratard with the Department of Health and Hospitals explains that it is naturally occurring in all bodies of water and infections are rare.

"Mostly the people who are going to get this infection are people who have serious problems with their immune system," said Ratard who says the bacteria has always been present in natural bodies of waters.

However, as bacteria levels increase with warmer weather, DHH officials urge everyone to be diligent and cautious of any open wounds. Tips from the DHH include:

  • Do not swim near a drainage pipe or in a ditch, or near runoff or littered areas.
  • Do not swim in areas with warnings against swimming.
  • Avoid swimming after heavy rains.
  • Avoid ingesting or swallowing the water.
  • Minimize immersing your head when swimming.
  • Avoid swimming with an open cut, wound or skin infection.
  • Shower after swimming.

Garey says he won't stop fishing anytime soon, but he does plan to be much more cautious.

DHH conducts weekly water testing and posts the results and advisories online.  Find that information here.

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